Interview | In the Shadow of War: Exploring post-conflict Bosnia

In the Shadow of War is a feature-length documentary exploring the lives of four young people in post-conflict Bosnia Herzegovina. Ceasefire's Usayd Younis caught up with its directors, Georgia and Sophia Scott, to find out why these stories needed to be told.

Film & TV, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, June 19, 2014 12:26 - 0 Comments

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Scott Sisters

In the Shadow of War is the debut feature-length documentary by director duo Georgia and Sophia Scott (the Scott Sisters) which premiered at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest. It explores the lives of young people in modern-day Bosnia after the war that took place there almost 20 years ago, which witnessed the first genocide on European soil since WWII. I caught up with the sisters to find out about why they made this film and what the future holds for the region.

CF: Your film looks at the stories of four young people whose lives were deeply altered by the war in Bosnia Herzegovina. What was unique about the war in BiH that has left these children’s lives in ruin?

GS: It was neighbour on neighbour violence, an unexpected war in many ways, and it was an internal war. For example Magdalena’s father who suffers from PTSD, he was 17 when he went to war.

SS: Under Yugoslavia you had many different ethnicities living under one roof but when Yugoslavia ended and Tito died there was no central government keeping everyone together. At that time there were lots of intermarriages and everyone was living happily with each other, but when Yugoslavia fell people started to turn on each other. You had a lot of different areas, like in Central Bosnia there weren’t just Muslims there was a big Croatian population there, and that’s where you saw some of the worst massacres. Ante, one of our characters, his father committed terrible war crimes in Central Bosnia and that was Croats against Muslims. People often think that the war was only Serbs against Muslims and they’re not so aware of the Croatian element.

GS: Also in the post-conflict years the education is really divided so you’re never actually taught all sides of the war. So a young person like Elvis growing up, he’s not taught what actually happened during the years of the war because schools are still separated.

SS: Everyone is learning a different history, there is no one communal history where a country can then move forward. There’s no unity in that sense.

CF: Looking at the effects of conflict through the eyes of young people is quite unique. Young people are often poorly represented in media or simply seen as victims with no agency. Do you think making a film from the perspective of young people is radical?

SS: I think it’s refreshing. I think it’s actually refreshing to hear from young people instead of hearing from policy makers or ‘experts’ that tend to feed you a very pre-written script.

GS: Also we wanted to keep it really natural, Sophia and I first went out there in November 2012. Because we didn’t know the history, the country and what it’s like today we wanted to keep it pure and simple. Meeting these four young characters, their lives represented the ongoing consequences of war in a very understandable and visual way so for us that was a powerful way to show the traumas of war that still exist in the country today.

SS: It’s also a very complicated history so for young people around the world now, outside of the Balkan region, they might be able to understand better if they can identify with someone in a similar age range to them. We’re not experts in the Balkans at all, and I think that’s why we chose to do it in a way that’s more understandable to the average viewer.

GS: Also, the film’s not really about ’91-95 – its not about the years of the war it’s about what happened afterwards. All these kids apart from Elija were born after the war ended or on the last year of the war so they’re the right ones to tell the story.

CF: When I went to Mostar, one of the iconic cities in the film, I recall a stone on the bridge which says ‘don’t forget’. It’s almost as though you made a decision not to show such things in the film?

GS: When we were going to Bosnia everyone was like ‘oh my god you’re going to Bosnia?’ People know the country of what they saw on their screens 20 years ago and that’s not what it’s like there right now. We did not want to make another war film about Bosnia, we didn’t want to use archive footage.

SS: We didn’t want to show mass graves and show the country in that way. We didn’t want to show, what comes up when you Google Bosnia, what comes up are mass graves and destruction of buildings – which there are still – in fact it’s hard to avoid them when you’re filming. That’s why we started the film with the graffiti and the bullet-ridden buildings.

CF: On the topic of agency, as two white Western Europeans, why do you feel that it’s important to uncover the stories of people in a place like Bosnia?

SS: Often Bosnia is misrepresented, you know about it because of the war. The war is finished there now. Bosnia is no longer just about an active war, it’s now living with the legacies of a war.

Bosnia is Europe. It’s in the middle of Europe and I think people forget that. Because we don’t consider us to be living in a country that experienced a horrendous genocide just 20 years ago. In fact, it’s next door to Italy, it’s right next to Switzerland. These European countries are all around it. It’s vital, also, for the peace of Europe, the peace of Bosnia Herzegovina. There’s a huge push for a country like Bosnia Herzegovina to be integrated into the EU, and I don’t think it’s a matter of ticking a box to be entered into the EU, you need to look at all the underlying issues that are there.

CF: What impact does your presence as outsiders have on the local community you are addressing and the story you’re telling?

SS: I think it’s very refreshing, sometimes, for people not from that region to go and make a film there. We were not perceived as Catholic Croat, Bosniac Muslim or Orthodox Serb, so already we were not judged. It meant we could go into any one of those communities and engage naturally with them without having that issue present. We’re quite young and weren’t a threatening force or an investigative team trying to uncover something.

GS: I don’t think we were seen as filmmakers, that’s the key. Because the four people in the film are young people we became very good friends with them. Magdalena became one of us. It was a very personal journey.

SS: That’s how we got access to Mr Bralow, who’s serving 20 years for war crimes in Sweden. We got access to him because we built up a relationship with his son. Over the course of 8 months we spent a lot of time building up strong relationships with them off-camera so they knew what we were doing. I wouldn’t want to be on camera, to have someone prying into my life, and as some of them were under 18 we needed them to understand what we were doing.

We were really well received there. The media did leave some years after the war and now the only stories you hear are sporadic anniversaries so for them this was a refreshing thing we were doing.

CF: You originally wanted to look at stories of the impact of rape as a weapon of war. What did you find when you looked at this topic, and what stopped you from exploring it further?

GS: What stopped us from exploring it further was that we met other young people who weren’t conceived through rape, but were still really feeling the long-term impact of war so we saw it as a wider story.

SS: We made some contact with women’s rights activists before we went into the country and their initial reply was we’re fed up of vulture journalists coming in here to make films about our damaged women.

GS: Each one we contacted had bad experiences.

SS: Often journalists and filmmakers ‘sell’ sexual violence. There are also very strong films made about sexual violence that are very important, it’s something that’s very close to our hearts. I did a film in Eastern Congo about sexual violence for Canadian TV. In fact in Africa it was much easier to film. People were much more open, they were much more talkative. In Bosnia it’s such a taboo subject, even 20 years later it was too hard to speak about.

GS: I think we would want more experience and understanding of the subject and situation before making a film like that in that region.

SS: I was surprised at how delicate it still was there. Because we were looking at young people who were conceived through that, for them as well the stigma is passed on. It was too raw still.

GS: Our film touches on it still. The question is there.

CF: The story doesn’t conclude on a particularly positive note. For example one of the boys wants to join the army and enact revenge on Muslims. From your perspectives, what is the future for BiH?

GS: That was Ante who wanted to join the army. Through the 18 months knowing him he has matured so much. When we first met him he just turned 17 and he had a lot of anger in him and this constant battle with the knowledge of his fathers crimes. Since then he has really progressed and I think we will see within the next 6 months he won’t join the army, and he’s come to that conclusion himself.

SS: Bosnia Herzegovina is a very complicated country. There’s many issues there within the politics. It’s still divided. The education system, everything.

GS: There’s an emergency peace plan still in place, how can a country function with an emergency peace plan that was meant to be there for 2-3 years, maximum 5 years. 20 years later it’s still there. It’s a false state of peace.

SS: It’s totally frozen in time. Our outlook isn’t wonderful. The people are fantastic, there’s hope within some areas. The number one thing is that the education system needs to be united, they need to be learning the same history.

GS: It starts with young people, they should be educating their parents.The hope is the young people but they aren’t being nurtured or catered for.

CF: You’re both women directors. How do you feel that this area of work is for women, do you feel that it’s an accessible space?

SS: We have better chances of getting access to stories sometimes, being young women. We aren’t necessarily as threatening as two male filmmakers.

When I was working In Africa as a women going into a lot of situations I often felt more vulnerable. But at the same time it gives us a huge amount of power. Interviewing and filming people is very intrusive and I do think there’s an element of sensitivity that a female touch brings into that situation. Only when I’m out in the field filming am I happy to be a female, the rest of the time it’s a bother.

GS: It can change a situation completely. What would it have been like in that prison with Bralow (the war criminal) if we were men. He ended up threatening us.

SS: If we had been trying to get commissions from TV stations I think it would be harder. Also because we’re not known filmmakers yet.

CF: So there’s a divide between the industry and the practical side of filmmaking?

SS: Yes. Also we’re lucky because we’re not married and we don’t have children yet. I can’t see how we’re able to have a family, this has been a two year journey. We spent a lot of time out there.

GS: On both sides there’s negative and positive access. I don’t care, I’m a female and I’m going to make films.

CF: There is a campaign following the film. What can people do to get involved and make a difference?

It’s going to be big. We’re starting from a grassroots level with the organisations working in BiH through to regional and national level groups. Over the next 2 years on our website you’ll be able to see progress there.

We’re going back out there in 2 months to film a broader outlook to the country. We want to tour this film, use it as an education tool and generate discussions on what can be done differently.

CF: Thank you for speaking to Ceasefire.

The film is screening in London on Saturday 21st at Open City Docs Fest at the Bloomsbury Theatre where it is up for the Best UK Film Award. There will also be a Q&A session with the directors. Details here.

Usayd Younis

Usayd Younis is Ceasefire Digital Editor. He is a documentary film-maker currently co-directing 'Generation Revolution', a feature-length documentary film about young black and brown activists in London. You can find his website at usayd.com. He tweets at @usayd

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